Google Glass: there'll be tears before bedtime

Bettings on the first lawsuit?

Mmm, in two minds, or should that be having double vision over Google Glass.

Can’t be the only one still wary of people approaching one on Westminster Bridge waving their arms like an Italian chef and talking animatedly, seemingly to themselves. Are they hands-free on their phone talking to a chum in Kilmarnock, or a recent escapee from a facility who might toss one summarily over the parapet merely for looking at them awry? And now people will be issuing instructions to their glasses, or rather the embedded computer screen in their specs’ interactive Google Glass, something recent facility escapees likely do anyway, possibly imagining they already have a computer screen there. How much more wary will that make you feel as you’re crossing a bridge alone at dusk, or standing too close to the crowded Underground platform edge?

At the same time, trying to navigate the side streets with the map app on the phone, or sat nav, can be a literal pain in the neck. So I can see the advantages and convenience of being able to see your directions on your specs.

I’m also of the generation where wearing glasses as a kid, especially if pink plastic NHS-issue with the obligatory sticking plaster holding together the broken bridge, labelled you four eyes, specstic, Joe 90, Piggy (see Lord of the Flies) or, for some reason the one I found least offensive, Milky Bar Kid.  But now the bespectacled boot will be on the other foot and the Google Glass generation presumably won’t be seen dead without their intelligent face furniture. And, as they’re already used to donning specs, not to mention finding them first thing in the morning crushed under the pillow or suspended from the toothbrush stand, existing glasses wearers will also be the most successful early adopters of the new technology. Finally, we’ll be ahead of the pack and be able to look down our noses through our Google Glass at the uninitiated as their heads swim trying to focus going down the stairs.

So far, according to Google’s YouTube vid, besides using them as a heads up walking or driving sat nav, you’ll be able to  take pictures  or video with your Google Glass glasses – generally, it seems according to the film, while , stunt flying, skiing or roller coastering – or you can browse the web or skype.  All you have to do is say “OK glass, take a picture” etc.  You can see how that is going to make you appear one anchovy short of a pizza.

And you’ll probably be able to do more besides following Google Glass glasses experiments with real users – as opposed to Google people, including Sergey Brin himself, who was recently spotted putting a pair through their navigation technology paces on the New York subway. Had he even thought of consulting the map?

The company is currently looking for 8000 “bold, creative individuals” in the US to field-test them (for which privilege they will have to pay $1500 to buy their own). As part of the deal they have to say how they’d use them in their 50-word application for the trial and are being invited to come back later with other ideas and “be part of shaping the future of Glass” – there’s an ambition.

Google Glasses guinea pigs have to be 18,  pick up their specs in New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco and get their applications in by 02.59 am US Eastern Time (for some reason) on February 28.

As well as talking to your Google Glasses, it seems, you will be able to listen to them through your skull. A patent filing to the Federal Communications Commission included a system for playing sound via a “bone-conduction” device rather than earphones or plugs (buds to our US readers).

So when will Google Glasses be on general release and all of us trying to look at at least two things at once?  There seems to be no definite date yet, but it will likely be sooner rather than later given that others are snapping at Google’s smart specs heels. Motorola is on the case with a more technical “headset computer system” for professional users like engineers and emergency services, while Oakley has Airwave ski goggles with a heads up display giving the wearer’s speed and telling them what music they’re listening too in cases where they’ve taken a tumble, bumped their heads and forgotten. 

Other companies offered up prototypes of similar devices at the last Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show in LA.  Among them were Vuzix, with its Android-driven M100 smartphone specs including computer screen and video.

Also driving the market are forecasts that annual international  “wearable mobile” sales could be worth over $1.5 bn as soon as 2014.

However, you do also wonder how soon after these things become de rigeur for the wired that the first lawsuit will be lodged against Google and/or Apple by someone who walks under the bus or taxi they neither saw nor heard due to videoing and following directions on their glasses, while listening to AC/DC or talking to someone on their iPhone.

As a further caution before the big launch, Google could also do worse than watch that Steve Martin comedy film classic The Jerk.  Here the humble gas pump attendant Navin R Johnson (Martin) helps out a customer with loose specs by welding a small wire prop-cum-handle to the bridge. This becomes the patented Optigrab and makes Johnson a fortune, but then ruins him when it renders wearers cross-eyed and they launch a class action. He’s left with just a remote control, a thermos and a paddleball. Even his dog Shithead deserts him.

Mr Brin, you have been warned. 

Photograph: Getty Images

Mike Jeffree edits the Timber Trades Journal.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

***

Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.